Is it just us, or are supplements *everywhere* these days? There are magic pills to boost your brain power. You can find beauty-enhancing vitamins to make your skin glow, your hair grow, and your nails get strong. Or, if you’re feeling more high-tech, there’s even a fitness device that creates personalized health supplements based on your activity. But do we really need all of these boosters, or are we just paying for a quick infusion of hope? We checked with the pros to find out which vitamins and supplements are worth shelling out for — and when to save your money.
Why Some Are Turning to Supplements
The current supplement craze might be an attempt to take control of our health concerns — maybe an extension of our worries about healthcare or perhaps, as Beverly Hills-based Dr. Nancy P. Rahnama MD, MS, suggests, as a more “natural” approach to symptoms that don’t immediately compel us to visit a doctor. “With the increase in depression, anxiety, fatigue, sleeplessness, and gastrointestinal issues… many opt for natural or supplemental treatment for their concerns,” she says.
And as it turns out, sometimes these home treatment options are the best course of action. “Many of these symptoms may actually be caused by a deficiency,” says Rahnama. When that’s the case, upping your intake of the deficient vitamin or mineral may lead to some resolution of your symptoms.
But for the average person, the answer isn’t always so clear-cut. “Most Americans get enough vitamins and minerals in their diet, that they don’t have any deficiencies and therefore don’t need a vitamin or supplement to be healthy,” says Dr. Matthew Mintz, a primary care physician and former George Washington University School of Medicine faculty member with a practice in Bethesda, Maryland.
He points out that there are a few notable exceptions. “Younger women with heavy periods can become iron deficient, which can lead to anemia or a low blood count,” says Mintz. “Anemia makes you feel weak and tired.” Vitamin D deficiency is also a subject of interest to the medical community, with the average rate estimated to be as high as 41.6 percent, and nearly double that among black Americans. “People who don’t get enough sunlight can also be vitamin D deficient,” explains Mintz. “Vitamin D is critical for strong bones.”
If you suspect that you may have a deficiency, check in with your doctor. A simple blood test can identify any issues, and your doc can help you figure out why they might be present.
Is There Any Risk In Taking Supplements Without Asking Your Doctor?
“It is not unreasonable to try a naturopathic approach of treating vague and non-threatening symptoms with vitamin supplementation at first, as some symptoms may be resolved more easily than others,” says Rahnama.
But she advises that you check the ingredients carefully for any additional vitamins or minerals or inactive “fillers,” especially if you have any allergies. “Some supplements may contain gluten, dairy, or other ingredients that the consumer may not tolerate,” she explains. Rahnama also suggests checking for the “Good Manufacturing Practice” (GMP) label — proof that the supplement was tested for purity and quality.
In most cases, no harm will come from taking “extra” vitamins or supplements on top of your fave superfoods — although Mintz points out that there’s no research to prove that it’ll help. He also notes that it may not be in your best financial interest to invest in supplements you don’t necessarily need (like a multivitamin, for example). “While it is unlikely that vitamins or supplements taken as recommended will be harmful, they do cost money,” he says. “So patients need to decide whether it is worth it to spend money on a vitamin that may not actually do anything.”
What happens if You Overdo It?
Mintz reassures that most vitamins are water-soluble. “That means your body just gets rid of what it doesn’t need,” he explains. But both doctors flag vitamins A, D, E, and K as exceptions. Says Rahnama, “These vitamins are not water- soluble, but fat-soluble, which means that when taken in high amounts, they will not be excreted in the urine, but will be stored in fat.” She therefore recommends monitoring with blood tests if you’re supplementing these vitamins, especially if you worry you might be exceeding recommended daily allowances.
Rahnama also cautions that iron supplements should only be taken by those with a confirmed deficiency. “Iron can be taken in excess and may lead to toxicity when taken unnecessarily,” she says, noting potential harm to the liver and other organs.
When Might Supplements Be Necessary?
In addition to the nutrient deficiencies flagged by Mintz, there are a few common scenarios that might necessitate adding supplements to your diet.
“Women who are considering and/or likely to get pregnant should take a prenatal vitamin,” says Mintz. “Prenatal vitamins are high in folic acid, which is proven to reduce birth defects.”
And patients experiencing weight loss might also have specific needs. Says Rahnama, “I frequently recommend certain supplementation to support the metabolism, immunity, and hair growth, as these may be compromised when losing weight.”
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(Photo via Getty)